As part of our Black History Month celebrations we spoke with Leonie Williams and Louise Francis about Afro hair, their heritage and what they’re “Proud to be”.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your heritage?
Leonie: I was born in Manchester but my parents are from the Caribbean – my mum’s side is from Saint Kitts and Nevis, two really small Caribbean islands in the east of the Caribbean, and my dad’s side is from Jamaica. Nevis is a tiny, volcanic island, which you could drive around in 30 minutes. St. Kitts is bigger and more of a party island where young St Kittians grow up, and work and when they’re ready to retire they might move to Nevis, or another neighbouring island.
Louise: I was born in Sandwell, Birmingham. My mum and dad were both born here but their heritage is mixed. My mum and grandma are Jamaican-Chinese and my granddad is Bajan. My Dad’s family is from Trinidad and Tobago, so I'm a bit of a Caribbean mix with a touch of Chinese in there too.
The theme for BHM 2021 is “Proud to be…”, what is it about being black you’re most proud of?
Louise: I’m most proud of how influential the culture is. I think black culture is a strong part of society worldwide – from music, to language, hair etc. things seem to catch on from things we as people do. A few months ago, I wanted to do a specific hairstyle, braids with exaggerated baby hairs and now that same hairstyle is all you’ll see on the high fashion runways. I love it!
Leonie: Our culture is very much in the mainstream right now which wasn't always the case. For me personally, I've grown and become prouder about being black as I've got older, as more parts of our culture have been accepted as well as celebrated.
Why is important to you to embrace natural hair styles?
Leonie: If we don’t embrace it, then how can we expect others to? It’s like having a more curvy shape or fuller lips, eventually these things become accepted within wider society. You’ll see white people with braided hairstyles now, which is great because it’s something they want to embrace as well, so it’s important for us to carry on embracing our own culture so different aspects become more accepted within society.
Louise: It’s an expression of individuality and because our hair is so versatile and we’re able to do so many amazing things with it, it is definitely something to be celebrated. Afro hairstyles are quite personal and dependant on the individual so if people are willing to learn about it/speak about their experiences that can only be a positive thing. This ties in with the “Don’t touch my hair” movement which highlights ignorance on black and afro hair. A lot of people may not understand what this represents but to us, it’s part of who we are and so it’s important to celebrate it accordingly.
What was the most challenging thing that happened to you regarding your hair in a professional/school setting?
Louise: I was one of three black people at school, that was challenging. As a young black girl, wanting to have the same lovely, straight European hair as all of my friends was difficult. I remember saying to my mum “why can’t my hair be like that” – it’s something that’s ingrained in us, that black hair isn’t as attractive as European hair. When I got to secondary school, there were a lot more people who looked like me and that taught me to be prouder of a feature that’s unique to us as people.
Leonie: Yes, when I was in school, during the summer break, my twin sister and I got braids. It was the first day of Year 8, our Head of year and Head Teacher were leading the first assembly. At the end of the assembly they asked certain students to stay seated whilst everyone else left. I realised all the girls who had to stay were black. We had no idea why we were all being singled out, it was so embarrassing – all our friends, classmates and teachers stood up and left whilst we had to stay in the hall. The Head of year asked us to follow her to her office, where we were told our hair style didn’t conform to the school uniform and we had to change it immediately. They tried to call my mum to send us home but they couldn’t get through to her so they let us stay for the day and sent us home with a letter explaining our hair is breaking school regulations. When my mum read it, she hit the roof! She took the next day off work, took us to school and had some stern words with the Head Teacher. We don’t know what was said but we didn’t have to change our hair. We noticed other girls had taken their braids out but my mum was adamant we weren’t doing that. It cost her over £100 for our hair but it wasn’t the money, it was the principal as there’s nothing about our hair that would stop us from learning.
Louise: When I’m not working in recruitment, my other job is theatre. There’s been times when I’ve been on set, and the hairstylist has no idea how to deal with Afro hair. The other black people and I have had to style our hair ourselves, even though a stylist has been paid to look after everyone in the production, not just those with European hair.
I think now new hairstylists have to complete modules on Afro hair as well before qualifying and although this is progressive, it’s a shame it’s taken so long for us to get to this point.
Tell me about positive interactions you’ve had regarding your hair at work?
Leonie: Just the whole “wow” reaction when you walk in the room – for example, on Monday, I walked into the office and I could see some of my colleagues looking at me thinking “what the hell” in a positive way. I had questions from some of the women asking how I got it done, how long it took etc and I genuinely love answering questions about my hair when people are truly curious.
Louise: I’m the type of person who gets bored of their hair easily so I change it every week and I’ll get questions and comments such as “how have you done that?” but it always comes from a place of curiosity. Some people may not have been around someone like me who experiments with different afro hairstyles and if they’re curious, I’m more than happy to talk about it and educate others.
Leonie: It’s exciting for me – when I got my hair done over the weekend, I was excited to come into the office because I knew I would get a positive reaction from my colleagues. Although I’ve never had a negative experience, I haven’t always felt this confident in other workplaces to change it as much as I do now, at Venn Group, there’s a company-wide acceptance.
If you could let people know anything about afro hair, what would that be?
Leonie: I’ve been asked if I’m bald because I wear wigs on occasion – no I’m not bald, wigs can be used for style purposes! Everyone’s hair is unique to them, if they want to have their own natural hair or want to use more European hairstyles using a wig or weave etc then both should be embraced equally and not put down.